Saturday, March 21, 2009

Internal-Exile and the Gaza Campaign

The truth is I am happy that I started this blog after Israel’s recent Gaza invasion. When the invasion started I was beginning to come to terms with the fact that after 8 months on leave from my work in New York, I only had one more month left in Israel to enjoy. I arrived in Tel Aviv in July after a month in Turkey, and decided that I would spend the six months not being an activist or academic and dedicate time to myself, in a state of “internal-exile.” This would be time to spend with my beautiful daughter, with friends I knew from the past, and those that I had yet to meet.

In “the Bubble” of Tel Aviv, I worked hard to ignore what was going on outside of the city’s borders. The first thing I did was get cable TV with numerous Hebrew channels, but also Arabic and Turkish ones so that if I desired, I could land in Beirut or Istanbul for a few hours. During the following months, I drowned myself in Israeli reality shows. The continuing saga of Israel’s first “Big Brother” reality show did not only capture my attention but the country at large. Periodically, I watched the news but I knew that if anything really happened in Tel Aviv I would know about it in minutes. In the days of the suicide bombings, if one did not hear the bomb itself, the immediate blasting of sirens coming from ambulances and police cars made it clear. Then there was the immediate cell phone calls: Are you OK? Did you hear the blast? These are all cues for turning on the news.

Tel Aviv however has become quite insulated from the conflict and suicide bombings –and at least for now- they have become something of the past. However, walking the streets of Tel Aviv late at night in the hours before the sun arises, I often thought how much blood had been spilt on these streets. This feeling submerged once I caught glance of all the African workers closing the bars, washing windows, and at one time, some going home on their bicycles, while others on their way to work. Twenty years ago, I remember walking the same streets; however, then, it was not Darfur refugees cleaning the streets that were exchanging glances with me but rather Palestinians from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, who use to come in the hundreds of thousands to work in what its founders coined the first “Hebrew” city.

Months passed with me spending time on the beach, discovering a new love for Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture, strolling down Rothschild Avenue, or sitting in cafes. Yet, while trying to ignore reality, like a soldier called up to duty I took my daughter to the annual massive memorial for the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In addition to this, I also went to a protest demanding the Israeli government do more to secure the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage by Hamas since June 2006.

And, now I come to Israel’s massive invasion of Gaza. During the months leading up to the conflict it was clear that a major conflict was in the making. News had been streaming for months from Israel’s southern city of Sderot and surrounding regions, where children for years have learned that you have 15-30 seconds to take cover from the rockets shot from the Gaza Strip. Parallel to this, Israel (and Egypt) was sending clear signals to Hamas that a major offensive was on the horizon.

On December 27, Israel’s massive bombardment started with Gaza being pounded like it never had before. For about three weeks Palestinians casualties continued to rise, reaching over 1200 deaths. For me personally, this had to have been one of the most surreal periods of my life. About thirty miles from my home a full-fledge war was underway, and it really had no affect on my daily routine. From Tel Aviv, I watched all the horrors of war on TV, and incredible amount of feelings of helplessness ensued. Flipping through channels, the Palestinian death toll climbed and the Israeli political triumvirate (PM Olmert-FM Livni-DM Barak) reiterated that there was no other way, and that the mission would continue until the army reached its goal; leaving everyone in the dark about what the mission was.

Needless to say, my six-months of internal exile had come to a crashing halt. I soon started to search for protests and for some means to express –at least my reservations- if not my outright opposition to the tactics of placing a whole population under siege in order to force Hamas’ political leadership to surrender, something everyone knew would not happen. On the other hand, I grew more and more frustrated with Hamas who were willing to put their people in such a position. The writing was on the wall and they did everything to provoke the Israelis to act. If this fact was not confusing enough, my heart also went out to all those in the southern parts of Israel. Yes, thousands of Israeli children suffered endured psychological pressures of war. Let us be open, the 13 Israelis killed is nothing compared to the Palestinian side but this is also due to the fact that Israelis have security protected rooms in their homes, bomb shelters, or took cover in stairwells. In any case, such use of numbers is banal and unethical since it just strengthens the claim that one killing justifies another.

One thing was clear to me: the Israeli Jewish-left leadership completely failed their constituency (and paid for this in the elections). The work was left solely to Hadash, the Jewish-Arab left front, which is made mostly up of members of the Israeli Communist party. Together Jews and Palestinians (Israeli citizens) protested in the middle of Tel Aviv, calling on both sides to end the violence and proving that Jews and Arabs can come together even in the most difficult of times. For me, the march was a bit nostalgic as I was able to meet up with old friends from university and members of co-existence organizations I had worked with in the past.

Now as reports from Israeli soldiers are coming out about excessive violence being used in the campaign, which lead to unnecessary death and destruction, the Jewish-Israeli left needs to do some serious soul searching and question how they failed not only the Israeli public at large but also the soldiers who were swept away with the overwhelming support, with no dissent being voiced among their politicians. Perhaps, Meretz and the Labor Party should ask themselves why they only received 16 seats in the Knesset. Certainly, there must have been a more sane way to go about this and they did not offer any real answer.

So the circle of violence continues. Sadly, both sides are becoming increasingly immune to violence, or at least they are much more tolerant of it. The Palestinians demonstrated this well during the age of suicide bombings. Hamas and Fatah have shown that even killing each other is sometimes more rewarding than killing Israelis. While rampant violence, once unacceptable to large parts of the Israeli society, now can be implemented with little dissent.

In two weeks, I will go back to Israel for the Passover holiday. The dust of the war has settled but not much has changed. Gilad Shalit is still being held in Gaza, rockets are still periodically shot over to Israel. Israelis are continuing with their periodic “targeted-killings,” and is keeping up with the blockade of the strip. Hamas and Fatah are still unable to reach an agreement to form a unity government. And, former mediators of the conflict have all but given up.

Together, Israelis and Palestinians need to ask themselves if all of this violence is really worth it.

Louis Fishman
March 21, 2009

1 comment: